If you’re moving to Spain, here’s a guide to Spanish education to help enrol your child into the Spanish school system from primary to secondary school.
Understanding the education system in Spain can be daunting, which can be more difficult if there’s a language barrier. However, you can choose from a range of Spanish and international schools to enroll your child in education in Spain. This guide to the Spanish school system takes you through each level of the Spanish education system, from primary school through to two levels of secondary school, and up to Spanish higher education and university entrance.
The standard of education in Spain greatly improved in recent decades through increases in spending and educational reforms. The latest OECD/PISA survey (2015) of educational standards of 15-year-olds across 70 countries and economies showed that Spain’s performance in mathematics, reading, and science is slightly above the OECD average. Spain currently ranks 30th out of 70. The country scored particularly highly in terms of students’ sense of belonging at school, ranking first.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte or MECD) oversees education in Spain. The 17 autonomous regions make most of the decisions regarding their own education systems, however.
Religious education in Spain is available in state schools but it’s optional. Schools are usually co-educational, and wherever possible, children with special needs are integrated into mainstream school. It is legal, although not popular, to home school children in Spain.
Choosing a school in Spain
Entrance to Spanish state schools generally depends on your catchment area (for both primary and secondary education). As a result, this may influence where you live. Some state schools in certain areas of Spain teach in the co-official regional language instead of Spanish. So, in Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia, or the Basque Country, subjects may be taught in respectively Catalan, Gallego, Valencian, or Basque. This is not always the case but is something to investigate. That said, most children master both the local dialect and Castellano (Spanish) as part of their general schooling.
Schools vary considerably in size and sophistication but often provide a strikingly caring and kind environment for small children. Schools in areas with large foreign populations may lag behind the general standards; this is because many of the students might don’t speak Spanish as a first language. You may want to find a satisfactory school for your children before choosing a property in Spain. Otherwise, your child might not be eligible to go to your preferred school.
Local and international schools in Spain
Most students in Spain attend local schools, which are free. However, foreign families may consider an international school to ease their child’s transition by continuing education in a familiar language. Your child’s age and length of time in Spain are just some factors to consider. For more information on how to choose a school in Spain, see Expatica’s guide to Spanish schools.
Compulsory education in Spain
Based upon the Ley Orgánica de Educación or Fundamental Law of Education, education in Spain is compulsory for all children and young people who are resident between the ages of six to 16 years, with primary education (primaria) lasting six years followed by four years of compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria or ESO), at the end of which a Certificate of Education is received. All students receive basic vocational training at secondary level.
Education authorities have an obligation to help foreign students integrate and must provide specific programs to do this.
State education is free of charge in Spain from preschool to 18 years. In some regions, parents may be asked to pay for books, other materials and extra-curricular activities. Financial help may be available in some cases – check with your own autonomous region.
School holidays in Spain
The school year will vary from one region to another and will also be affected by what a child is studying, their level and their particular school. In Spain, the school year generally starts in mid-September and runs through to mid-June. There are three terms of roughly 11 weeks.
Spain has among the longest school holidays of anywhere in Europe. Half terms do not really exist, though compensation is in the numerous local festival days and non-teaching days that give children and teachers more breaks in the school year.
There are usually two weeks of holiday over Christmas, two weeks over Easter, and a long summer holiday (10–11 weeks). Children moving from primary to secondary school sometimes get an extra week or two of summer holiday. This may even include an end-of-school trip abroad.
Check with the website of your autonomous community or school for exact dates. Schools are also closed on public holidays and local religious holidays. For information about public holidays, see Expatica’s guide to public holidays in Spain.
The school week in Spain
The daily timetable varies depending on the school and region. Generally, most children go to primary schools from 9am to noon, with a long lunch break of up to three hours before going back to school from 3pm to 5pm. Both private and state primary schools normally look after a child from the beginning to the end of the school day (9am–5pm). School lunch may be available, although some children bring a packed lunch or children return home. Lunch is the main meal of the Spanish day, and if your children eat the school lunch they will be encouraged to eat the substantial meal alongside other children.
In cities, the school day can end at 2pm, with only a short lunch break or no break at all. Some schools may also opt to open half days in September and June. Schools in large cities may have school activities before and after school.
Secondary school hours tend to be longer, with some schools starting around 8–8.30am and finishing around 5.30pm. In some cases, secondary schools might not provide supervision during the lunch break. In this case, your child either needs to return home, or you must collect them. Older pupils can expect homework most nights.
Homework also plays a big role in children’s education in Spain. Studies show one in five children in Spain spend two-and-a-half hours per day on homework, which led parents to threaten a homework strike in 2016 against schools that set weekend homework. This exceeds guidelines in Madrid, however, which advise that five-year-olds (year one) should receive 10 minutes of homework per day, increased by 10 minutes each year thereafter.
The structure of the Spanish education system
The Spanish education system has four stages, two of which are compulsory:
- Nursery and preschool (educación infantil) – optional
- Primary (educación or escuela primaria) – compulsory
- Compulsory secondary education (educación secundaria obligatoria)
- Upper secondary education (bachillerato) – optional
Nursery/preschool in Spain (educación infantil)
The first six years of education in Spain are known as educación infantil or infant education. It has two stages.
The first stage is nursery school (guarderia), which takes children from around three months up to three years old, but it is not covered by the state. Guardería may be private or state-run but both charge fees (if you’re a working mother you may be eligible for help with these).
The second stage is preschool (escuela infantil) which takes children from three to six years old. Preschools are often part of state primary schools and are free. Most children attend the three years of preschool education and develop their physical and mental skills. From the age of four they learn to read and write and by the time they complete their Educación Infantil they will know the alphabet. Emphasis is placed on learning about various aspects of different cultures, the environment and road awareness skills
Nurseries and preschools are an excellent and easy way to introduce foreign children to the Spanish language and culture. For more information, see our guides to childcare in Spain and Spanish preschools.
Spanish primary school (educación/escuela primaria)
Primary schools are escuelas or colegios (although the latter term is sometimes used to refer to semi-private and private schools). It is compulsory for children to attend primary school in the calendar year in which they turn six, and usually lasts until age 12. There are three two-year stages or cycles, making a total of six academic years:
- Primer ciclo – age 6–8 years
- Segundo ciclo – 8–10 years
- Tercer ciclo – 10–12 years
Children study Spanish language and literature (and the language and literature of the autonomous region if applicable), mathematics, natural and social science (such as history, geography and biology), arts, a foreign language (and sometimes a second foreign language in the tercer ciclo) and physical education. All pupils have daily reading time. In the third cycle, they study Educación para la Ciudadanía, which is moral/social studies. You can chose whether or not you want your child to take religious (Catholic) education lessons when you join the school.
There is no streaming in primary education in Spain; classes are all mixed ability, and parents can see teachers if they need to discuss their child’s progress and problems. Homework starts in the first year, and examinations can start from around the third year of primary school.
Children receive regular assessments and grades. Grades are:
- insufficient (IN) – insufficient
- suficiente (SU) – sufficient
- bien (BI) – good
- notable (NT) – very good
- sobresaliente (SB) – outstanding
If pupils have not attained a satisfactory level of education at the end of the first or third cycles they may have to repeat a year before moving onto the next stage. It is common for pupils to attend classes during the school holidays to catch up.
Compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria) in Spain
After primary school, students enter secondary education in Spain (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria – ESO) between the ages of 12 and 16 at a state school (Instituto de Educación Secundaria), private school (Colegio Privado), or state-funded private school (Colegio Concertado).
The secondary school system in Spain saw major changes in recent years. It moved from the rote-learning model and is now more akin to the British comprehensive school system. Classes rely on project work and continuous assessment rather than learning facts. Spanish schools are relaxed with less discipline. The family often helps the child with their studies.
Secondary education in Spain has two cycles: from 12–14 years and from 14–16 years. Both cycles have core subjects and optional ones. The core topics are usually Spanish language and literature (and the language and literature of the autonomous region if applicable), mathematics, geography, history, a foreign language, and physical education. Optional subjects include music, technology, languages, and social studies. After two years, the curriculum has similar core subjects. Students choose optional courses, including natural and social sciences, music, technology, and visual arts. Religious education is optional.
Students receive regular assessments and may repeat a year. Students cannot repeat a year more than twice.
If students complete the four years, they receive a Graduate of Secondary Education Certificate or Graduado en Educación Secundaria. They can then move onto their bachillerato, which allows them to apply to university. Less academic students receive a school certificate (certificado de escolaridad / escolarización).
Compulsory education in Spain ends after ESO. At 16, students can study for the bachillerato, do vocational training (formación profesional, or Ciclos Formativos), or simply stop studying. Some students also combine lessons with workplace training for a Certificado de Técnico which can lead to jobs, training, or Bachillerato studies.
Upper secondary education in Spain
Although not compulsory, students can continue their education in Spain by studying for university entrance or entering vocational studies.
At 16, students who wish to continue their education can study for a further two years to earn the Bachillerato certificate. This is the certificate needed to go to university although students will also have to sit an entrance exam (Prueba de Acceso a la Universidad or the ‘Selectividad’).
All students take a number of core subjects including Spanish, a foreign language and history but they also have to specialise in one area: natural and health sciences, sciences and engineering, social sciences, the humanities or the arts. Some nine subjects are studied with the yearly exam results of each subject aggregated to provide an overall mark up to 10.
A pass at Bachillerato will allow a student to take university entrance examinations (Selectivo).
To undertake the state-supervised Selectivo, the student will take 7–8 examinations over three days that mimic their Bachillerato examinations. Then they receive an aggregate score up to 10 (like the Bachillerato system). This combines with their Bachillerato score to provide the overall university grade – although the Bachillerato exam results account for 60% of their final aggregate mark and their Selectivo 40% . The final grade will define what they can study at university.
The vocational courses provided by the institutos are intended to provide practical training for a working skill such as plumbing, electrical work, hairdressing etc. The vocational courses last four years and result in qualifications universally recognised across Spain. There are two parts to the Ciclos Formativos:
- Grado Medio – this lasts two years and provides a basic level of training.
- Grado Superior – this lasts a further two years and can only be started when a student is 18 years old. If a student passes their Grado Superior they obtain access to the university system. Grado Superior is open also to direct entry from students who have passed their Bachillerato.
State universities and polytechnic universities
Those who have passed the Bachillerato with acceptable marks and who want to go on to university take an entrance exam in June. There are state universities throughout Spain that provide degrees (diplomaturas) and professional qualifications (licenciaturas) and post-degree education. Read more about higher education in Spain.
Languages assistance in Spanish schools
Lessons in Spanish state schools are taught in Spanish or sometimes in the regional language, such as Catalan or Basque. Schools usually assess the children’s ability in Spanish and if they need help with the language, they can be given extra lessons. Schools may put children in the appropriate class for their level of understanding – which could be with younger children – until their language has improved to the point that they can follow lessons with children of their own age. As a rule, the younger the child, the quicker the new language is acquired. Some children may have to repeat a year.
Some schools in areas where there are lot of expats offer intensive language or ‘bridge’ classes for the first few weeks alongside the usual curriculum. If a school does not offer extra help you may have to organize private lessons with a tutor or through a language center in cities.
As part of an initiative between the MECD and the British Council, around 84 state preschools and 43 secondary schools in Spain offer a bilingual integrated Spanish-British curriculum. These programs are available in the second cycle of the educación infantil or preschool, when children are around four years old and run up to the end of Educación Secundaria Obligatoria around the age of 12. Contact the British Council in Spain for more information.
Special needs schools in Spain
Students with special educational needs may be educated within mainstream state schools, units within mainstream schools or within specialist special needs schools. If you have a child with special needs, get any documentation from any previous school translated into Spanish.
Homeschooling in Spain
Not many parents choose to home school their child in Spain but it’s not illegal and there are organizations such as the Association para le Libre Educacion (ALE) to advise and support those who do.